A page a day

A professional writer's private thoughts

Archive for childhood

Once upon a time in Santa Ynez

Once upon a time in Santa Ynez, a beautiful Southern California valley known for its fast horses and perfect pinot noirs, there was raised a little girl who probably should have grown up to be a Luddite.

After all, she was brought up on Little House on the Prairie (the books, not the TV show). Television was expressly verboten in her family, because they lived too far out in the boonies for cable and satellite dishes were prohibitively expensive. Instead, she harvested acorns and played wilderness-themed games with her little brother. They ran around outside, built forts and treehouses, and used their imaginations a lot.

The day her father brought home their first computer, an IBM PC circa 1985, she typed: “Dear Mr. Bill Etling, Thank you for making me a self.” She was trying to thank her dad for building her a wooden bookshelf with cut-out hearts, which hung in her bedroom. The rather adorable typo was officially her first. The shelf still hangs in her bathroom today.

Her elementary school didn’t get computers until she was in fourth grade. Classes would trek to the computer lab to play games – Oregon Trail and Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego were her favorites. But in fifth grade, thanks to a technology-savvy teacher, she discovered NYCENET.

The New York City Educational Network was an early internet set up to provide educational connectivity between public schools in New York City. An enterprising teacher came up with the idea that expanding student horizons by connecting them with other students across the country would be a tremendous learning opportunity. They set up a 1-800 number, which was supposed to be shared only with the teachers. But the West Coast students had to enter the number into an old-school modem to access their NYC counterparts. Hours of pointless chatting from home computers ensued.

The unusual experience of talking to kids so far away, living such different lives, was an eye-opener. So was the lesson on how 1-800 numbers worked when the access was revoked for running up hundreds of dollars of charges on the New York City School District’s phone bill. So in the sixth grade, she tried a different approach. She set out to get a pen pal in every single state.

Dashing off letters that were mailed to “Any School, Any Sixth Grade, Town, State, Zip Code,” she received hundreds of responses in reply. Not wanting any potential pen pal to be disregarded, she answered every single letter by hand. Some of the pen pals became correspondents for years. She never got every single state crossed off the list, but the local newspaper ran an article about her quest, and it was there that she got the idea that writing articles for a newspaper might just be a good career.

These are the things that I can’t tell you on my resume – but they give you the start of the story of how writing, communicating, sharing information and using technology became part of my life’s work and world view.

With William in Brokaw, Wisconsin, where our grandmother Etling was born in a small paper mill town.

With William in Brokaw, Wisconsin, where our grandmother Etling was born in a small paper mill town.

Hilton Hawaiian Village memories

We lived in Penthouse 5 at the Hilton Hawaiian Village Apartments from June to December 1989. My father was assigned to the Honolulu office of General Telephone and Electric for a special project – as a civil engineer, he planned the undergrounding of phone lines for the state of Hawaii. As a lifelong surfer, he was thrilled to bring us to Hawaii for what could have been permanent residency. As kids who loved to boogie board and play at the beach, we were thrilled to be there.

Life at the Hilton Hawaiian Village Apartments was a trip. From our balcony we could see a free fireworks show every Friday night, as well as the elaborate preparations for the weekly luau, which included the fire eating performances of Siva Afi – at least, I thought that was his name. Googling it now I realize that is actually the name of the traditional Samoan fire knife dance he was performing. Whatever moniker he really went by, my little brother and I were quite impressed with his fire swallowing skills.

We took long walks down Waikiki, swam laps in the apartment pool every day, shopped at the Ala Moana Mall, and on the weekends would tour different parts of the island. I became obsessed with Dole Whips. I also was thoroughly convinced that pineapples grew underground, like potatoes, because despite passing row upon row of pineapple plants as we drove past the Dole fields coming back from the North Shore, I never saw a single pineapple above ground awaiting harvest.

Thanks to an expense account from my dad’s company, we ate out a lot. This six months of my life is probably why as an adult I’m a bit of a profligate foodie. My brother and I would “rate” each restaurant using a Sanrio sticker book we’d gotten at the Japanese grocery store in the Ala Moana Mall. That place had the best bakery – and amazing apple fritters – that I have ever had.

Little things about living at the Hilton stand out: being Charo’s neighbor, we’d see her in the elevator. She had a permanent show there at the time. There was an elderly man named George in our building who liked to ask my brother and I, every time he saw us, “Do you know why they called it Hawaii 5-0?” We’d always say no. He’d gleefully answer himself: “Because Hawaii was the 50th state!” One day we finally got to ride the paddle boats out into the lagoon in our front yard. We were dismayed to find you couldn’t de-board on the little island in the center. There were a few other kids in our building. We played baseball with them on the lawn next to the lagoon, they’d never played before.

It was a strange place to live, with the constant comings and goings of tourists and a permanent party right outside at the resort, and probably wouldn’t have been right for us long term. But for our temporary paradise vacation, it was an amazing spot to call home. Here we are standing in front of the lagoon – in our front yard!

Penthouse at the Hilton Hawaiian Village Apartments

The importance of stories

Chances are, at some time in your life you have known someone who was a wonderful storyteller. Maybe it was a parent or grandparent, a teacher, librarian or babysitter. The tales they told were fodder for a child’s active imagination, sending your mind off on amazing adventures. This storyteller, perhaps, made you realize that the world was an exciting place where strange and wondrous things could happen on any given day.

Stories are hard to tell. I’m a writer, by profession and natural inclination, but I cannot tell you a good story to save my soul. I might tell you a few fragments, little snippets and pieces, but I don’t want to bore you with my talking so I’ll stop after a minute or two. I can write you a story, but I don’t tell stories at parties or even to my closest friends. The chance that I will fail, and you will not be entertained, is just too great, and I hate to disappoint.

This fear of mine is rather sad, because the belief that life can take you to completely expected places first came to me from stories. Two of my grandparents were remarkable storytellers. My grandmother Etling’s stories were simple and real. She grew up in a very small town in Wisconsin and she would tell my brother and I about growing up there with her brother, and the adventures that they had together. All of the tales had a sense of place straight from the small-town Midwest: the woods, the lake, the river, the ski hill, the tiny paper mill town, the family farm. It was almost like listening to my beloved Laura Ingalls Wilder books first-hand.

My grandfather Mitchell’s stories were filled with drama and excitement. He had been a Sheriff’s deputy in our small California town, and he had gotten himself into some strange scrapes, like rescuing horses from a flooding river (even though he couldn’t swim) or being kidnapped, in his own patrol car, by two drug addicts who left him in the trunk (he had left his gun at home that day). He was a storyteller by nature and people loved his tales. We would all listen with rapt attention when he told one, hanging on every word.

I was thinking of stories today because I found this photograph of my grandfather on my brother Will’s blog. He’s pictured with a tiger that was part of a movie being filmed in Santa Ynez sometime in the early 1970s. The details are long lost – Renton has Alzheimer’s now and is unable to recall the past or his family now. But he was in the movie, and so was the tiger, and it was another captivating story that he frequently told.

Renton and the tiger.

It’s no accident that I became a journalist, because I wanted very badly to tell stories that people were interested in and confused or amused or horrified by. There’s probably some irony that though I claim to not tell stories, I have been writing them down for all of my adult life. But I see it as more of a translation process. The subjects of the stories tell me where they came from, or what their experience has been, and I write down their words.

Someday I’d like to be able to tell stories to my children. I hope they’ll grow up with wild imaginations that aren’t solely fueled by movies and TV shows. Thinking of this makes me more motivated than ever to learn to tell stories out loud. It’s never too late .. right?

Road runners!

Roadrunner.When we were traveling in New Mexico, everywhere Liz and I went there was talk of spirit animals. I pushed aside the idea that I might have a spirit animal, until we got to Taos and were browsing a very large selection of native artwork in one of the local shops. In a far corner, tucked away in a display case, was a little roadrunner in silver.

Growing up on Calzada Ridge we used to see the roadrunners all over the place. They would run the hot asphalt road, even in the 100-plus temperatures of summer, and sometimes they appeared on top of our low split level fence. They were cool birds, and we always liked seeing them. The mischevious roadrunner of the Road Runner and Wile E. Coyote cartoon always confused me – because I’d seen these animals, and they didn’t look or sound like that.

About the time I graduated from high school, the roadrunners disappeared. We figured that maybe increased development in our rural neighborhood had pushed them out, or maybe the coyotes got them (see, that cartoon does have some potential merit beyond entertainment). All of my family members agreed recently that we hadn’t seen one in the foothills for a very long time.

So long, that I had forgotten about roadrunners until I saw that silver talisman. Of course, I do have a spirit animal – there aren’t many creatures that have spent as many hours running those hot asphalt roads where I grew up as the roadrunners, and me. It felt good to make that connection. But I was sad that we hadn’t seen these cool creatures for long, and assumed they were gone for good.

Today, my dad snapped these photos of young roadrunners along Calzada Road. They’re back! I’m so excited, even though I didn’t see them myself. What a great discovery. I hope they are around for awhile. A former colleague who lives in a rural part of Goleta tells me that his family had the same experience. After being gone for years, the roadrunners have returned. Seems to me like a very good sign.

Beep Beep!

Photos by William Etling. Want to see roadrunners on your street? Find a great place live at Move to Santa Ynez. (movetosantaynez.com)